Over the past few months, Louisiana Governor Piyush “Bobby” Jindal has been making aggressive moves to prepare himself for a 2016 presidential bid.
In addition to rejecting a Medicaid expansion (and in the process denying healthcare to hundreds of thousands of Louisianans) and voucherizing the education system, Jindal has also pushed (Christian) school prayer and indicated support for a bill that would make the Bible Louisiana’s official book (a bill was later scuttled).
But the whopper came last week, when Jindal—who converted from Hinduism to Christianity as a young person—boasted of his conversion during an appeal to far-right social conservatives, the GOP’s base. The Washington Post described Jindal’s conversation with a group of conservative pastors:
Over two hours, Jindal, 42, recalled talking with a girl in high school who wanted to “save my soul,” reading the Bible in a closet so his parents would not see him and feeling a stir while watching a movie during his senior year that depicted Jesus on the cross. “I was struck, and struck hard,” Jindal told the pastors. “This was the Son of God, and He had died for our sins.”
It is easy to see Jindal’s speech as political pandering by someone who desperately wants to be relevant in the upcoming GOP nomination battle and whose own approval ratings in his state rank somewhere between awful and “consider another career.” And it’s quite routine for some to hype their credentials in order to get buy-in from their audience. Just think of rappers (many of whom come from middle-class backgrounds) exaggerating their street cred in order to win over suburban kids who buy their music.
But there’s another take that resonates deeply with Hindu-Americans like me: Jindal’s conversion as an attempt to escape bullying and the constant scrutiny of what it’s like to be an Other in America.
Like Jindal’s parents, who came to the United States after the repeal of the Asian Exclusion Act in 1965, many Hindus from the Indian subcontinent (and a smattering from the West Indies, South Africa, and the Asian Pacific) began to settle in the United States. Though the community slowly established itself in cities such as New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Houston and Chicago, the reality for many Hindu immigrants—and their children—was that they were alone in a new country without much of a support network.
My story is somewhat similar to Jindal’s. I grew up in small towns in New Jersey, New York, and Ohio before my family settled in the Philadelphia suburbs in the 1980s, and I was subjected to the worst types of bullying and racism during my elementary school years.
A few choice examples: I was called the ‘n’-word on a daily basis; was threatened with detention if I didn’t sing gospel songs in my public school music class; and a teacher once asked whether the “chilled monkey brains” scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom accurately reflected Hindu practice.
My family didn’t have many friends in the community, so I was an outsider, and often embarrassed to identify as a Hindu. I just wanted to be accepted as an American, because in this country, the dominant narrative has been—and continues to be—that being American implicitly (or explicitly) means being Christian. It’s likely why Barack Hussein Obama has had to repeatedly reaffirm his Christian bona fides.
For Hindu kids, the dilemma of having to explain a “funny religion” can be traumatic, and the bullying that takes place—often from horribly inaccurate or outdated educational materials or from classroom environments ill-equipped to deal with religious diversity—can shape how they attempt to reconcile their religious identities with their Americanness. Too often, it can be a clean split from religion to national identity.
Jindal likely didn’t have peers who could make him feel comfortable in his own skin— their“save your soul” comment was a friendly euphemism for “your religion sucks”—and his quest for acceptance meant disavowing his parents’ culture (and to a more subtle extent, his parents). As the Post notes:
His religious education reached a higher plane during his junior year in high school, he told his dinner audience. He wanted to ask a pretty girl on a date during a hallway conversation, and she started talking about her faith in God and her opposition to abortion. The girl invited him to visit her church.
Jindal’s conversion, while apparently authentic, speaks to the idea of how pressure to convert can eventually wear a person down. There are many Hindu kids (or Muslim, Buddhist or Sikh kids, for that matter) who anglicize their names in order to prevent being bullied. I should know. I was one of them for most of my high school years. I only realized in college that being Hindu is not in opposition to being American, and as a result, I embraced my religious identity.
In a way, I feel sorry for Jindal, who chose to change his name to Bobby because he didn’t want to be called Piyush, and perhaps converted because he didn’t want the stigma of having to explain himself constantly or to be bullied incessantly. After all, the anecdotes Jindal boasts about in his spiritual journey don’t sound like ones of compassion. They seem more like the intolerant forms of Christian chauvinism that seek to marginalize those who fall outside of that worldview or—through persistent peer pressure—convert them. (Then again, maybe if I grew up in Louisiana, where David Duke once received one-third of the votes for governor and where a racist homophobe like Phil Robertson is lionized as a hero, I’d have chosen the same route.)
To be sure, the public embrace of Christianity by Jindal and his South Carolina counterpart, Gov. Nikki Haley (who was raised Sikh and claimed Sikh-American heritage until her 2010 gubernatorial run) is something many of us don’t want to discuss because we look at religious freedom as an enshrined right. But the truth is, religious freedom is highly subjective and dovetails with what it means to become American for many kids from non-Christian backgrounds. It’s why someone like Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, who publicly identifies as a Hindu, has become such a strong voice for pluralism in the political arena.
Ultimately, Jindal got what he wanted—the acceptance and endearment of his far-right Christian base. Moreover, he “became” an American by accepting Jesus while espousing some very un-Christian positions (intolerance of LGBT community members, rejection and judgment of a woman’s right to choose, and an outright antipathy towards the poor).
And sadly, his story isn’t the only case of how the trauma of being an outsider can ultimately lead to raising one’s hands in the air and—pardon my Star Trek reference—becoming assimilated. (It’s happening in Louisiana as we speak.)
But part of me wishes that Piyush had stuck it out and helped to define a message for others of his generation and mine, and for future generations: that being American doesn’t mean giving up who you are and what you believe. Then again, if Jindal’s story doesn’t help him get the GOP nod, he can always audition to be the annual keynote at Liberty University.